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Learning Center Brings Collaboration To The Fore

As a learning center brings collaboration to the fore, changes are afoot. Take the case of William Jewell College’s Pryor Learning Commons as it gets supported by reliable, flexible technology.

George Evans
Mar 05, 20240 Shares35 Views
When a learning center brings collaboration to the fore, expect wonderful changes.
After more than five years of planning, William Jewell College in Liberty, Missouri, opened a new facility where students can learn together and where professors:
  • can try out the latest teaching methods
  • find out what really works
  • propagate it across campus
William Jewell is a logical place for this kind of experiment, since the college has always emphasized instruction.
It’s a learning institution where:
  • there are only 11 students for every faculty member
  • the largest room on campus seats only 48
  • the average undergraduate class size is just 16
It’s a place where the controversial flipped-classroom teaching method that emphasizes discussion and dialog rather than lecture is not controversial at all.
Dr. Anne Dema, provost, describing the school’s new Pryor Learning Commons, said:
We wanted a place that would be the intellectual center of our campus, where students have access to information in an environment that encourages creativity, collaboration, and active learning.- Dr. Anne Dema
Elise Fisher, director of instructional technology, added:
We’ve always encouraged personal interaction with our faculty, but we’ve come to realize that our students don’t need their professors for information - they have Google for that.- Elise Fisher
She continued:
They need to learn the skills of thinking, understanding, and solving problems.- Elise Fisher

Learning Innovations

Among the innovations in the learning center are collaborative workstations and classrooms using Crestron’s (in Rockleigh, New Jersey) AirMedia presentation gateway to facilitate the sharing of ideas and information.
Visitors to the commons are greeted by a welcome display and a touch screen kiosk with information about the campus.
Once inside, there is a large, open common area with comfortable seating and three collaboration tables, each of which includes:
  • a 40-inch flat-screen display
  • seating for four students
  • multiple wireless Crestron AirMedia connections
  • one wired input to the display
  • a 5-inch touch screen that controls input selection.
Joe Nickell, principal of AV Plus Design, Inc., Shawnee Mission, Kansas, explains:
We emphasized access to information, interactivity, and collaboration in designing the technology for this building.- Joe Nickell
A large classroom has two 80-inch touch-sensitive displays at the front, set up to work as interactive whiteboards, plus:
  • three continuous walls of glass marker boards
  • four 55-inch flat screens on the side walls
  • a document camera
  • Blu-ray player
  • sound system
  • a 24-inch Crestron touch screen with annotation capability
Students work in groups of six at eight star-shaped tables, each with a hardwired computer input plus wireless AirMedia inputs, so that students can use their own laptops or mobile devices to send images:
  • to the wall-mounted displays
  • to others in the group
  • to the entire class
The tabletops also have whiteboard surfaces, so that students can draw on them with dry-erase pens.
A second Innovation Studio includes:
  • four student collaborative worktables
  • an 80-inch touch-sensitive interactive display
  • five additional 40-inch displays
  • document camera
  • Blu-ray player
  • a 24-inch Crestron touch screen with annotation
  • sound system
One of the interesting pieces of technology in the Innovation Studio is a Crestron Capture HD recording device tied to a video conferencing system and its PTZ (pan-tilt-zoom) cameras.
The school uses this combined system in three ways:
a. First, they can bring in guest speakers to address classes or other groups from distant sites without the need to travel to the campus.
b. Second, they can record student presentations.
c. Third, they can record the way students interact in class; so, instructors can fine-tune their collaborative teaching methods.
The ground floor also includes five media studios, each focused on an aspect of video or audio production.
Nickell explains:
Students can use these rooms to explore the digital tools they will use in the real world.- Joe Nickell
He added:
For example, they can make a YouTube video and narrate it, practice job interviews, or create a presentation for a class project.- Joe Nickell

Building As Media Studio

In a way, the whole building is a media studio.
It’s open 24/7 to anyone with a student ID, and the classrooms are never locked. The technology is always available for student use.
The middle floor includes:
  • a large open common area for meetings and study
  • three offices
  • two group study rooms (each of which includes a collaborative workstation)
There’s also a faculty commons with AirMedia collaborative capabilities.
The top floor, or quad level, features an entrance from the campus quadrangle, also with:
  • an interactive greeting kiosk
  • a café for students
  • an open common area
  • three group study rooms (each with a collaborative workstation)
The two classrooms and a building-wide CATV (community antenna television) system are united by a Crestron DigitalMedia network with two matrix switchers, allowing users to switch any source device to any combination of displays.
Nickell said:
All the technology in this building is very scalable.- Joe Nickell
He added:
Students can share ideas within their group on a single display, or they can share them with the entire class. You can combine the classrooms, common areas, and other spaces for a meeting or event on one floor or throughout the facility.- Joe Nickell
To help students best take advantage of these resources, the classrooms, studios, and collaborative study rooms are tied into an Outlook calendar using Crestron Fusion RV and scheduling panels mounted outside each door.
Students and staff can reserve these rooms using the panels or their computers and other devices, and they can tell at a glance which spaces are available at any given time.
Dr. Dema said:
We’re not saying we know how every device and every space will be used.- Dr. Anne Dema
She added:
We have found that our students and our staff are always one step ahead of us, asking ‘Why can’t we do this?’ Our intention was to make this facility as flexible as possible, then see what good things happen.- Dr. Anne Dema

Collaborative Criteria

Dr. Dema said that AV Plus Design and the technology committee had several criteria in mind when designing the collaborative systems.
She elaborated:
We knew we wanted an environment where our students could talk to each other easily and see what everyone was doing. It had to be wireless, because that’s the way our students work.- Dr. Anne Dema
She continued:
We also know that most of them have multiple devices, including laptops, tablets, and smart phones, and they want to be able to use whatever they happen to have in hand at a given moment.- Dr. Anne Dema
AirMedia fits all these requirements.
Nickell said the team had looked at another screen-sharing system, and while it could have worked, it had several downsides.
First, it required a USB puck-shaped transmitter to connect to every student device, and these transmitters can be lost. The receiver was large and difficult to mount, while the AirMedia receiver would tuck behind the flat-panel display.
The other system required its own wireless network, while AirMedia tied into the Wi-Fi network already installed on campus.
And finally, it would have cost almost three times as much.
Nickell said:
From a technology and cost basis, it was a win-win to make the change.- Joe Nickell
Some universities use a product that includes file sharing as part of the collaborative package.
According to Dema, they did not even consider that option. She said:
Our students don’t need met to tell them what system they should use for file sharing. Google Drive is the norm here, but DropBox is pervasive on this campus, and we have our own open-source sharing site called Jewell Commons.- Dr. Anne Dema
She also said that the collaborative systems cannot work without a robust infrastructure, including:
  • a high-bandwidth Wi-Fi network
  • the large screen displays
  • a means to send images to those displays
Still, the students know best what devices and software applications to choose.
The technology team used extensive input from faculty and made a number of visits to other campuses in designing this facility. They also created five pilot classrooms prior to finalizing their designs.
Dr. Dema explains:
We ran a faculty workshop about learning environments to introduce a grant program where they could write a proposal to change their teaching spaces.- Dr. Anne Dema
Fisher added:
One of the rooms we rebuilt has whiteboard tables and multiple screens; one emphasizes enhanced visuals and sound; two have multiple projection systems where they can project from up to three devices at once.- Elise Fisher

Final Thoughts

All these rooms were operational while the Pryor Learning Commons was under construction, and what the team learned from them went into the final technology designs.
According to Dema and Fisher, the results of all this effort have been well worthwhile.
Dr. Dema said:
The day we opened this new building our students filled it - and it’s been in constant use ever since.- Dr. Anne Dema
She added:
They’re excited about it, and they’re embracing it. I think we got it right.- Dr. Anne Dema
Indeed, when a learning center brings collaboration to the fore, it’s a win-win situation for everyone: administrators, teachers, parents, and, most especially, students.
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